Thursday, March 25, 2010

Have we ever really paid for content?

With several newspapers like the Financial Times already setting up pay walls to hide behind and others like the New York Times planning to charge for content, there's plenty of discussion about the future of print media. Since readers are charged for reading the printed newspapers so should they be charged for reading the net version. I must say I have tended to sympathise with that argumenton the grounds that the income guarantees the survival of quality journalism. If everything is free then who will provide thoughtful and balanced reporting from the world's troublespots?

I've just read a fascinating article by Mark McLaughlin in the Huffington Post called Audiences don't pay for content that has certainly made me think again. Here he claims that we've never really paid for content but we certainly pay for the distribution. Once we've paid the TV licence or cable fee we can watch as much TV as we want. We pay for the fact that a newspaper has been put together and sent to us but the content has been paid for by the advertisers (in some cases, like the small ads, that's us too). Radio is even more generous, being free or bundled into the TV licence, and we can listen to whatever we want. We happily pay for the equipment but not really the actual content.

Internet is, of course, far from free. We pay sometimes quite hefty fees for our broadband access, landline and cellular, as well as the cost of all of our computers, gaming consoles and mobile devices. Should we then face further charges for all the net content we access? It's a bit like buying a TV, paying the licence and cable company charges and then being asked to pay extra for every programme we watch.

Can advertising bear the costs of all this content? Can solutions like iTunes or Kindle provide attractive distribution solutions that we would be prepared to pay for? Can some of the internet access costs be used to finance some of the content too? No clear answers are available but I can't see the pay wall tactics of some newspapers having any effect as long as someone else is providing the news "for free". We'll just stop quoting these sources. There's no point sending a link to an article that your friends can't read.

McLaughlin doesn't have any clear solution either but it's an article that stimulates discussion. There's also the question of how all this effects education and the debate between advocates of open educational resources and those who want the university's material and research safely locked away behind passwords and journal subscriptions. The future is open but probably not free.

Photo by rhondda.p on Flickr CC BY NC

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